In Graceland: hope and history in Michael Collins’ fiction
The Death of all Things Seen combines the social consciousness of Dickens with the moral complexity of Dostoevsky
Michael Collins’ international perspective gives his work a new edge in such exalted midwestern company as Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, the early Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, F Scott Fitzgerald, Saul Bellow and Marilynne Robinson
Michael Collins’ profound and riveting new novel is a tale of two cities for our own time (‘the best of times and the worst of times,’ ‘it was a far better thing…’), one that combines the social consciousness of Dickens with the moral complexity of Dostoevsky. In this case, the two cities are, at first, the rich and the (relatively) poor sides of Chicago, with the ominous tone for all that follows given by a tour de force first chapter set on Lake Shore Drive.
The contrast is then filled out, in an intricately orchestrated counterpoint, not only in relation to Chicago’s long-standing north/south division but also in terms of the US’s still unresolved north/south divide and the global contrast of the hemispheres.
Collins’ international perspective gives his work a new edge in this exalted company, even while his ear for contemporary American vernacular – especially in the frequently humiliating context of a family automobile trip – is nothing less than the best
While one circle of characters is involved in an inspiring but ultimately doomed flight to the wilds of Canada (a ‘lifeline’ in the Vietnam era, with an immensity that ‘set human existence against a greater presence,’ but also a poisoned environment that reveals the limits of attempts to return to nature), the other main group of Chicagoans survive by eventually heading southward and encountering surprising epiphanies (in forsaken hospitals of rural Illinois, abandoned mines of Appalachia, tacky Florida beachfronts) that temper the depression and failed relations haunting them.
Collins is one of several outstanding writers with a talent for expressing layers of metaphysical significance connected with life in Chicago and surrounding Midwest areas. This novel especially bears witness to his subtle understanding of the severe natural and moral landscape depicted by generations of giants such as Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, the early Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, F Scott Fitzgerald and Saul Bellow, as well as contemporary writers such as Jane Smiley, Charles Baxter, and Marilynne Robinson. (Sherwood, Saul Herzog and Marshall Ames are among the memorable names in the novel.)
Collins’ international perspective gives his work a new edge in this exalted company, even while his ear for contemporary American vernacular – especially in the frequently humiliating context of a family automobile trip – is nothing less than the best. His connection to the sufferings of the Irish and their tragic efforts to escape to America – many in coffin ships to Quebec – underlies but does not exhaust his sensitivity to the deadening effects of imperialism and unregulated capitalism gone wild.
The novel is also a story of crime and punishment, with multiple miserable marriages, murders, a complex instance of a pattern often found in Collins’ work, such as the highly acclaimed The Keepers of Truth (2000) and The Resurrectionists (2002). In each case, a set of interlocking family stories combines tales of grotesque killing with page after page of beautifully written passages that illumine a struggle against enveloping darkness.
It is no accident that there is so much disaster, pain, and fascination with death in these works. Collins has the skill to show how deeply exploitation, despair and destruction have twisted life even in one of the most powerful societies in history, the post-second World War American Midwest, and especially now in the aftermath of the economic meltdown of 2008.
The earlier rise and general decline of the industrial Midwest was already captured vividly in The Keepers of Truth, a grim masterpiece that can be compared in numerous ways to existentialist classics such as Sartre’s Nausea. Now, to an extent that may have seemed unimaginable earlier, the sordid problems that dominate that prescient novel – the manipulative influence of the media, and widespread fraud, inequality and violence born of greed and desperation – have only intensified, even in “the heartland”.
I cannot begin to do justice here to the impressive literary skills that this well-constructed novel manifests in dealing with these serious themes. As a philosopher, however, I would argue that it is, among other things, one of the best books we have that confronts the modern philosophical question of where we are now. That is, it can be seen as accomplishing, for us, the Hegelian task of ‘capturing one’s time in thought,’ although in this case not in a forced teleological conceptual scheme but through a simultaneously realistic and symbolic portrayal of what Kierkegaard anticipated as the ills of ‘the present age’.
The book’s characters face at least three broad levels of crisis. There is, first, the immediate problem of the unusual 2008 economic disaster, one in which – as the title indicates – ‘things,’ in a palpably substantive sense (eg, a ‘1963 Buick Invicta 4600’ with ‘tomato red leather interior,’ and handwritten messages sent by ‘arterial vacuum suction tubes’), have given way to abstract derivatives schemes in which massive theft and corruption occur without concrete accountability.
The suicides in this book, like the capture of a Madoff, are most striking as exceptions that indict the whole encompassing system of the still flourishing but unpunished. Although Collins doesn’t hide his sympathy with the view that this most recent crisis is, in large part, a repetition of earlier downturns, such as the Reagan era scandals and the Depression, he is also very good at illustrating concrete ways in which, by our time, the denaturalisation of human relations has taken alienation to an extreme new level.
His insights here anticipate, in a striking way, those of a recent non-fiction book, aptly titled The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter by David Sax. As Bill McKibben’s review explains, we now live with ‘a threat that goes beyond Karl Marx and his nineteenth-century complaints about capitalism; it’s in our digital era that all that was solid really did melt into air. Or into Wi-Fi, anyway.’ (NYRB Feb 9th, 2017; cf. Robinson, The Givenness of Things, 2015)
Significant as this ‘melting’ or vaporising phenomenon is, it is worthwhile to distinguish the peculiarly acute crisis of our moment, which can be called ‘late modernity’, from the long-standing unease of modernity in a general sense, that is, the widespread crisis of meaning that arose once the unifying notions of communal and religious tradition were increasingly replaced, after the Enlightenment era, by individualistic indulgence along with an accelerating stress on mere technical ‘progress’.
Anderson characterised this period, in its late nineteenth-century manifestation, by writing of ‘those years when modern industrialism was being born,’ and a fanatically driven north Ohioan, Jesse Hardy, began to buy machines that would permit him to do the work of the farms while employing fewer men, and he sometimes thought that if he were a younger man he would give up farming altogether and start a factory in Winesburg for the making of machinery. Jesse formed the habit of reading newspapers and magazines…[It was] the beginning of the most materialistic age in the history of the world…and beauty would be well-nigh forgotten in the terrible headlong rush of mankind toward the acquiring of possessions…
The new crisis of late modernity and the familiar general crisis of modernity both need to be distinguished from an underlying third basic issue, one common to all great novels, namely, the perennial problem of the pain brought by death and the pursuit of love.
Collins’ main characters struggle valiantly, and in very different ways, with each of these three overwhelming problems at once. Their growing appreciation of the third problem, the fundamental limits of the human situation (the novel’s epigraph begins with Hemingway’s words, ‘the world breaks everyone’), allows us to see how, despite the horrific peculiarities of our late modern situation, it is absurd to imagine that a solution lies in some kind of nostalgic escape to a pre-modern world.
His characters learn that they are linked by powerful forces beyond their control (‘salmon in the late crush of evening spawn’), and yet their developing lives reveal how it still can happen that, in a decentred and fluidly linked diversity of stories, there is an upward gathering stream
For the novel’s most reflective characters – the northward fleeing entrepreneur Nathan Feldman and the southward wandering writer Norman Price – a crucial step in this appreciation lies in learning to overcome total cynicism in the face of ‘the quiet injustice of God’s creation’. This problem arises typically after what Anderson called the moment of ‘sophistication’: ‘seeing the countless figures of men who before his time have come out of nothingness into the world, lived their lives, and again disappeared into nothingness’. The challenge then is to find a way, nonetheless, to become people who, in his words, at least ‘had for a moment taken hold of that thing that makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible’.
This task is achingly difficult for the outcasts who make up Collins’ cast of characters, and who are by no means helped by their encounters with the Jesses of the world and contemporary fundamentalists who only intensify problems with their latest versions of apocalyptic superstition. And yet, as an unrepentant ironist (with, eg, a conflicted gay hero who dies literally and tragically in a closet), Collins saves some of his best lines for a religious small-town medical aide, Thomas Strait, whose undaunted daughter acknowledges, ‘we are all sufferers of vertigo.’
Strait has serious weaknesses of his own, and he sees that ‘a deeper knowledge of all things was not such a liberating gift.’ This leads him, however, not to nihilism but to critical persistence: ‘I see God as a way of allowing us to ask the right questions. I don’t think religion was ever about answers. That’s where modern philosophy got it all wrong.’ Strait’s lifestyle of simple help to all kinds, and his dream project of retrieving, in an enduring physical display, the biographies of people who have passed away unnoticed in a local country hospital, discloses a ‘glint of light,’ ‘a communion of people gathered below.’
Norman reacts perceptively to all this, in an age when ‘there were no miracles anymore’: ‘Thomas was talking, in what were tongues of fire, but, when Norman listened, it came out as something ordinary.’
This sense for the ordinary, in all its brilliant detail and variety, is the ultimate redeeming feature in this book about the bleak houses of our time. What appeals to Norman is the social and multivalent character of Thomas’ project: ‘I like the idea of ghosts and the fluidity of decentering any one story. It would be better than a play letting people form their stories.’
Those familiar with the history of the extreme strands of European idealism and romanticism might understand these words as a gentle rebuff of Schelling’s early proposal to take the meaning of human life to lie in its being a play, a play not directed from outside but by each individual simply choosing to create a destiny on its own. Collins’ novel suggests an alternative beyond either Hegelian teleology or romantic indulgence, in their stereotype excesses.
His characters learn that they are linked by powerful forces beyond their control (‘salmon in the late crush of evening spawn’), and yet their developing lives reveal how it still can happen that, in a decentred and fluidly linked diversity of stories, there is an upward gathering stream – what Norman (in his modern family household, with Joanne and the adopted Grace, who have also been multiply abandoned) finally experiences, in the reality and symbol of a swooping pelican, as ‘what might be achieved on the right thermal…in the midst of great flight.’
Karl Ameriks is Professor Emeritus and former distinguished McMahon-Hank Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. The Death of all Things Seen by Michael Collins was released in paperback on March 9th by Head of Zeus